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Henry IV of France

Henry IV (December 13, 1553 - May 14, 1610) was the first of the Bourbon kings of France, reigning from 1589 until 1610. As a Protestant he was involved in the Wars of Religion before acceding to the throne; as King he converted to Catholicism and signed the Edict of Nantes, granting religious liberties to the Protestants and effectively ending the civil war.

He was the son of Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendome and Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre. He was born in Pau, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, in the southwest of France.

On August 18 1572 Henri married Marguerite de Valois, sister of the then King Charles IX. In the same year he became king Henry III of Navarre, succeeding his mother Jeanne d'Albret, who had brought him up as a Huguenot. Jeanne herself was also a Protestant, and had declared Calvinism the religion of Navarre. Henry's marriage was part of a plan to help quell the French Wars of Religion. As part of this plan, he was forced to convert to Roman Catholicism on February 5, 1576, and kept in confinement, but later that year he gained his freedom and resumed Protestantism.

He became the legal heir to the French throne upon the death in 1584 of François, Duke of Alençon, brother and heir to the Catholic King Henri III, who had succeeded Charles IX in 1574.

Since Henry of Navarre was a descendant of King Louis IX, King Henry III had no choice but to recognize him as the legitimate successor. (Salic law disinherited the king's sisters and all others who could claim descent by distaff line.) In December 1588 King Henry III had the Duke of Guise and that man's brother the Cardinal, murdered. Henry had to flee Paris and joined forces with Henri of Navarre, but died shortly thereafter. On the death of the king in 1589, Henri of Navarre became nominally the king of France. But the Catholic League, strengthened by support from outside, especially from Spain, was strong enough to force him to the south, and he had to set about winning his kingdom by military conquest. He was victorious at Ivry and Arques, but failed to take Paris.

With the encouragement of the great love of his life, Gabrielle d'Estrée, on July 25, 1593 he declared that Paris vaut bien une messe (Paris was worth a Mass) and permanently renounced Protestantism. His entrance into the Roman Catholic Church secured for him the allegiance of the vast majority of his subjects and he was crowned King of France at the Cathedral of Chartres on February 27, 1594. In 1598, however, he declared the Edict of Nantes, which gave circumscribed toleration to the Huguenots.

Henry's first marriage was not a happy one, and the couple remained childless. Even before Henry had succeeded to the throne in August, 1589 the two had separated, and Marguerite de Valois lived for many years in the chateau of Usson in Auvergne. After Henry had become king various advisers impressed upon him the desirability of providing an heir to the French Crown in order to avoid the problem of a disputed succession. Henry himself favored the idea of obtaining an annulment of his first marriage and taking Gabrielle d'Estrée as a bride, who had already borne him three children. Henry's councillors strongly opposed this idea, but the matter was resolved unexpectedly by Gabrielle d'Estrée's sudden death in April 1599, after she had given birth prematurely to a stillborn son.

Henry IV proved to be a man of vision and courage. Instead of waging costly war to suppress opposing nobles, Henri simply paid them off. As king, he adopted policies and undertook projects to improve the lives of all subjects that would make him one of the country's most popular rulers ever.

During his reign, Henri IV worked through his right-hand man, the faithful Maximilien de Bethune, duc de Sully (1560-1641) to regularize state finance, promote agriculture, drain swamps to create productive crop lands, undertake many public works, and encourage education as with the creation of the College Royal Louis-Le-Grand in La Fleche (today Prytanee Militaire de la Fleche). He and Sully protected forests from further desecration, built a new system of tree-lined highways, and constructed new bridges and canals. He had a 1200m canal built in the park at the Royal Chateau at Fontainebleau (which can be fished today), and ordered the planting of pines, elms and fruit trees.

The king renewed Paris as a great city with the Pont Neuf, which still stands today, constructed over the River Seine to connect the Right and Left Banks of the city. Henri IV also had the Place Royale built (since 1800 known as Place des Vosges) and he added the Grande Galerie to the Louvre. More than a quarter of a mile long and one hundred feet wide, this huge addition was built along the bank of the Seine River and at the time was the longest edifice of its kind in the world. King Henri IV, a promoter of the arts by all classes of peoples, invited hundreds of artists and craftsmen to live and work on the building’s lower floors. This tradition continued for another two hundred years until Emperor Napoleon I banned it.

King Henri's vision extended beyond France and he financed the expeditions of Samuel de Champlain to North America that saw France lay claim to Canada.

Although he was a man of kindness, compassion, and good humor, and much loved by his people, King Henri IV was assassinated on 14 May, 1610 in Paris, by a fanatic called François Ravaillac, and was buried at Saint Denis Basilica. His widow, Marie de Médicis, served as Regent to their 9-year-old son, Louis XIII until 1617.

While the rest of France marks the end of monarchist rule each year on Bastille Day, in Henri's birthplace of Pau, his reign as king of France is celebrated.


On August 18 1572, he married, firstly, Marguerite de Valois, annulled in 1599, with no children.

On December 17 1600, he married, secondly, Marie de Médicis with six children:


  1. Louis XIII (September 27 1601 - May 14 1643)
  2. Elisabeth de France (November 22 1602 - October 6 1644) - married Philip IV of Spain on November 25 1615 in Bordeaux
  3. Christine (February 12 1606 - December 27 1663)
  4. Nicholas (April 16 1607 - November 17 1611)
  5. Gaston, Duke of Orleans (April 25 1608 - February 2 1660)
  6. Henriette-Marie (November 25 1609 - September 10 1669) - married Charles I of England on May 11 1625 by proxy

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Preceded by:
Henry III
King of France Succeeded by:
Louis XIII
Jeanne III King of Navarre

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45